Lost for words

Your mouth goes dry, stomach knots and head begins to swim as you grip the microphone in a white-knuckled stranglehold. With New Year's resolutions still fresh in our minds, Bruce Munro examines a common condition many rate as more terrifying than death and would love to overcome - the fear of public speaking.

Glossophobia. Try saying that clearly and confidently when you are terrified. The fear of public speaking - whether it is triggered by an audience of hundreds or a circle of half a dozen - can be a nasty, debilitating condition that strikes exactly when it is least needed.

Catherine Irvine knows. Next month the Dunedin City Council waste strategy officer will be fully and enthusiastically engaged in public consultation on the city's draft Waste Management Minimisation Plan. But not many years ago she ''completely lost it'' just before she was due to give a 90-minute seminar.''

I was working for a herbal medicine company and stepped in at short notice for someone else,'' Ms Irvine said.

Already feeling under pressure, she discovered 15 minutes before going on stage that her shoes did not match. It was the proverbial camel's last straw.''

I panicked. When I got up, I was holding on to the podium for dear life.''

Everything I wanted to convey got lost in translation.''

I must have been speaking really fast, because I finished 30 minutes early.''

For many people, public speaking is an everyday reality and an occasional necessity - throwing in an opinion or a piece of gossip at smoko, making a presentation to work colleagues or at school board of trustees meetings, or saying a few words at a friend's wedding or birthday.

Communication is the essence of how we make ourselves known, build relationships, convince others and become persuaded. It is fundamental to who we are and what we do.

But surveys suggest 70% to 90% of us fear public speaking to some degree. For some it is not much more than a heightened nervousness. For many others it is a nerve-racking experience with physical and mental symptoms that can include a racing heart, dry mouth, trembling, loss of focus and inability to collect thoughts.

For such people, public speaking can become an activity they avoid with passion and as often as possible. In fact, in one survey the fear of public speaking rated higher than the fear of dying. Given the choice of delivering the eulogy or lying in the casket, a good number of us say we would gratefully choose the casket.

Public speaking is so widely and deeply loathed that it is regularly used as the activity of choice by psychologists wanting to generate and examine stress responses. Why is it so feared? Because, the experts say, public speaking carries with it the threat of being judged by others.''

Primarily it is a fear of social evaluation,'' clinical psychologist Dr Nicola Brown says.''

Often people who feel anxious speaking in public worry they will be evaluated negatively by others - that people in the audience may be judging them or will disapprove of them.''

One of the reasons this phobia is so common is most of us have limited opportunities to practice public speaking, Dr Brown, of Dunedin-based Psychology Associates, says.''

So when the opportunity is there, our fight-or-flight response kicks in, giving us symptoms of anxiety which don't actually help us with the task at hand. Once we become aware of the symptoms, our attention is then divided between those symptoms - `How am I looking? Is everyone noticing I am blushing?' - and what we want to say.''

And if the person then starts to mentally berate themselves for feeling or looking anxious, and begins to think others are judging them, the anxiety builds.

If it becomes especially difficult to tolerate, some people may have a panic attack and not want to put themselves in that situation again.''

But the more we avoid something, the less chance we have to see that we can manage it, and build confidence that we can handle the next speaking opportunity that comes along,'' Dr Brown says.

David Nottage, New Zealand's first winner of the World Championship of Public Speaking, had to make that choice.

As a 21-year-old supermarket manager, he ''couldn't string two words together'' if he was in front of four people.

But he chose to work on it. And in 1996 he beat 30,000 others to become a world champion speaker.

Not that he is immune to pre-speaking jitters. Despite now running an Auckland-based communication consultancy and having spoken in front of thousands of people, Mr Nottage admits be recently became quite nervous when his daughter was sitting in the audience for the first time.''

So I did what I teach other people to do. Breathe deeply, put a smile on your face, and focus on the start of what you have to say.''

They are skills Mr Nottage - and 290,000 others worldwide - first learned at Toastmasters International. Toastmasters, members will proudly tell you, is the world's largest not-for-profit speaking organisation.

Started in the United States 91 years ago by Ralph Smedley, the organisation reached New Zealand with the formation of the Dunedin Toastmasters Club in 1962.

Men-only for its first 50 years, Toastmasters had a women-only younger sister called International Toastmistress Clubs which later changed its name to POWERTalk. Both organisations now have open memberships.

EVERY year New Zealand's 247 Toastmaster clubs - including nine in Dunedin and one each in Queenstown and Wanaka - see dozens of fearful would-be public speakers such as Ms Irvine and Mr Nottage come through their doors.

Some, however, do not make it on their first attempt.

Craig McGregor, who joined Dunedin Toastmasters Club five years ago, knew of someone so nervous about attending that on their first four attempts they made it as far as the door before vomiting.

Others, like Ms Irvine who started at Lunchspeak club in 2009, spent her first six weeks just sitting there saying nothing.''

I think the first time I did introduce myself, but then I chose not to do any impromptu speeches until I had done my Icebreaker speech,'' she said.

Teaching manuals, 360deg evaluations and endless opportunities to speak are Toastmasters' modus operandi. Competent Communication is the first of Toastmasters' scriptures - a manual designed to guide initiates through their inaugural 10 speeches.''

Each one focuses on a different speaking skill,'' Mark Jory, who is a member of two Dunedin clubs, said.

The first speech, the Icebreaker, is about controlling nerves. The second focuses on sincerity and the third on structure. Then comes body language, vocal variation, word selection, applying everything learned to date, using visual aids, persuasion and, finally, inspiration. Becoming a Competent Communicator can take one or two years. But that is only the beginning. For those who choose to, there are a further 15 advanced manuals teaching and giving experience in specialty speaking areas.

And that is only the ''communication track''. There is also an optional ''leadership track'', added a decade ago in recognition of the fact that ''great leadership and great speaking are strongly connected'', Mr Jory said.

Do it all and, after anywhere between five and 20 years, you will become, like Mr Jory, a Distinguished Toastmaster.

As with any organisation, Toastmasters has its own culture, jargon and quirks.

Punctuality and effusiveness are virtues. The Timer's amber bulb lights up after 90 seconds during a Table Topics speech, but after two and a-half minutes of an Evaluation and after nine minutes of an Advanced Speech.''

Ums'' and ''ahs'' are conversational tics that are counted and reported by the Um and Ah Counter and should be unlearned as quickly as possible.

But a supportive environment is the heart of Toastmasters, and is one of the secrets to its success for hundreds of thousands of formerly fearful public speakers.

Each member is assigned a mentor. Even the continuous evaluation is deliberately structured in a ''commendation, recommendation, commendation'' format to keep the vulnerable speaker buoyed and eager for the next step.

Paulette Boyes, who is a previous Toastmasters area governor, says the organisation attracts a diverse membership, in part because public speaking is a great leveller.''

It's your skills on the day,'' Mrs Boyes said.''

Your voice is listened to. It doesn't matter what your background is.''

Which may or may not offer much comfort if the thought of speaking in front of people fills you with trepidation.

But the experts, from Toastmasters aficionados to communication consultants and psychologists, all agree there are steps that can be taken to help overcome the fear of public speaking.

Mr Nottage has three messages for people with glossophobia.

The first two are: you are in good company and you are not broken.''

Most of the people you see in the world who come across as confident are just as nervous as you and I'', he says.''

You just have to learn how to use [the fear and flight response] and manage it.''

The third is a caution and a call to action.''

Do not let this [fear of speaking] limit your options. Believe me, it will if you allow it.''

Dr Brown says people should not interpret anxiety symptoms as meaning they cannot speak in public.''

Take opportunities to speak up in group settings. If you tremble, or blush, just notice it and carry on anyway,'' Dr Brown says.

She also suggests joining a supportive Toastmasters group can be ''invaluable''.

If the fear is part of a broader pattern of anxiety about social situations, such as fear of speaking, eating, writing or using the telephone in front of others, ''it would be wise to seek input with a clinical psychologist'', she says.

The only other New Zealander to win the World Championship of Public Speaking is Brett Rutledge. At 28 years old he was the youngest winner when he took the title in 1999.

Now based in Melbourne, Australia, and heading up an international communication consultancy, Mr Rutledge says those wanting to become proficient public speakers must foremost learn to ''be yourself''.''

It is amazing how many CEOs have an idea in their head of what it means to be a CEO, and for years have been doing an awful job of impersonating that stereotype,'' he said.

His second tip is to learn to tell stories, and his third is to ''recognise the audience is on your side''.''

They want you to do well because their experience won't be good if you aren't.''

Spend any time around Toastmasters members and the phrase ''it's changed my life'' will be heard. In the space of one hour at a recent Toastmasters club meeting it was said by three separate people.

Those making the statement seem earnest, but the apparent hyperbole goes against the grain in our understated culture - until the realisation dawns that it is not so much about Toastmasters as it is about overcoming the fear of public speaking.

To go from fearful and withdrawn to being able to present yourself confidently and your ideas convincingly - now that is worth shouting from the rooftops.

Toasting Anglo Saxons

Understated culture? If you mean modest, fine, but we shouldn't be reservedly English forever. Spend time with Latins, wildly gesticulating. Silent pauses are effective in public speaking, for dramatic emphasis.